THE PERIOD FROM 1950 TO ABOUT1965
Chapter 13. Human prey.
It was February and the ground was hard with frost. The squirrel dreys were easily spotted in the spindly leafless trees against the bright clear sky. Many dreys had been pushed onto the leafy floor by the keepers who exterminated as many squirrels as they could at this time of the year. Squirrels are very fond of the bark of young saplings and could cause a lot of damage if left unchecked. There were no squirrels about so we decided to hunt each other. Concealed in a specially sewn pocket in our combat jackets we carried pistols. Alan had a long Crosman that could be pumped up. With a maximum of ten strokes he claimed a huge power but I don't think it was any more than my consistently powerful and accurate Webley senior. All the others had various Webleys except Bill who sported one of the racy looking new Diana Mk. 4's.
We spread out ducking through the damp dark undergrowth, dodging from tree to tree. The rules were that we didn't actually shoot at each other rather near each other to show we had been spotted, but in the heat of the game this included shooting at Wellington boots or even backsides if covered by a heavy combat jacket. It was really exciting shooting at a quarry that could shoot back. I was the first casualty. Alan had peered round a tree and taken a hasty shot at my boots and hit me in the calf. The slug went clean through my jeans and into my leg. It bled profusely and, although we pretended to laugh about the situation, Stansby was most concerned about blood poisoning. He knew that the slug must be taken out because we were unlikely to show the wound to a parent or doctor. He took it on himself to examine the hole and found that the slug had taken my long nylon football stocking into my flesh with it for about an inch. Pulling, squeezing and twisting at the material he managed to work the pellet out. It was incredibly painful from what I can remember but you had to keep a brave face and not cry in front of other boys. With true bravado, as the slug was not very deformed, I loaded it into my Webley and told Alan I would count to ten then put it in his leg! In ten seconds he was a hundred yards away!
Keith was a younger boy who wanted to be in our gang and hung around wherever we went. At first he just carried our dead squirrels or went to find suitable round stones from the stream that ran through the woods, for use in the catapults. He was a kind of apprentice who got the odd shot with a gun and the prestige of being with older boys.
Keith now had a gun of his own, a model 2 Diana smooth bore air pistol. It had a beech wood handle and a barrel that had to be pushed in to cock the gun. A cat slug was then pushed into the breech with a screwed plug. When the thing was fired the barrel jerked forward throwing you off the point of aim. The pistol could jerk in any direction but usually upwards. To get a vaguely accurate shot you had to aim a couple of feet below your target to compensate for the muzzle flinging upwards.
Keith loved it anyway. I remembered the feeling when I had my first gun it represented the transition from toy gun to real gun. With our superior speed of loading we had moved through the woods some distance leaving Keith behind. He was not strong enough to push in the spring loaded barrel without the aid of a tree trunk to push it against. First the bark had to be wiped clear of the slimy green coating, then the stiff spring had to be pushed right home sometimes taking two or three attempts. Next the breech plug was unscrewed and a pellet pushed in with a small ram rod, finally re-screw in the breech plug and you are ready to shoot! Keith now looked round for one of us to stalk. Before long he came across a figure leaning against a tree. Keith took careful aim at his boot and hit him squarely in the middle of the back! The figure spun round. To Keith's horror it was Chatters the school bully!
Chatters was a bit simple in the head. Everyone knew this but no one voiced it for Chatters and his cronies were to be avoided at all costs. Chatters was constantly in trouble for playing truant, stealing, bullying and general class disruption. Amongst us younger ones his infamous deeds were embellished to legendary proportions. At one public caning by the religious instruction teacher, he had grabbed the cane out of her hand and as he ran from the room accidentally touched her on the cheek with it. This was interpreted by eye witnesses as him slashing her across the face! He and his satellites swaggeringly referred to the incident as when Chatters had caned the teacher. When he left school the teachers must have heaved a sigh of relief having passed their problems onto someone else. In this case it was the new Express Dairy where he had got a labouring job.
Keith had just shot Chatters! Before the truth had time to sink in and his feet uproot themselves and run, Chatters had covered the few yards between them and was twisting Keith's arm fit to break. Keith was roughed up a little by Reg Harper, Chatter's right hand man while Chatters attempted to smash the pistol against a tree. He was unable to damage the tough little pistol which enraged Chatters even more. He cocked the gun and advanced threateningly on the nine year old Keith. Not knowing how to load the pistol he fired it point blank at the side of Keith's head, the barrel sprung out and hit the boy on the temple. The bully repeated the shot and no doubt would have continued if the battered child had not slumped to the ground unconscious. With this the two youths ran off.
When we found Keith he was badly shaken and had a huge bruised lump on the side of his head. This incident and my wounding brought us to our senses and we stopped our dangerous game and headed for home.
On the way back through the woods we came across a squirrel's drey on the floor. On further examination we found that it contained a dead adult squirrel, four dead babies and two alive. The woodkeeper's method was usually to shoot both barrels into the nest and leave it at that. The force of the blast must have knocked this drey clean out of the tree and as nothing ran out they assumed that all the occupants were dead.
Although we hunted animals, as I have stated before we were not cruel children. I cradled one of the little blind orphans in my jersey to take home and feed. The other was given to Keith to help him get over his ordeal.
For weeks I raised the baby squirrel first feeding it milk from a pipette and later cornflakes, raisins and nuts. By mid spring it lived wild in my back garden with a flightless crow I had rescued on another occasion.
- Tony Sheppard